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Marketing... Not Just for Suits

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You are the most talented software developer you know. Elegant designs flow out of the seemingly unending river of your creativity. Your

architectural insightfulness is unmatched in your workplace. You can

code faster and more accurately than anyone your company has ever


So what?

Many software developers—especially the most conceited ones, it

seems—live with the misconception that their skill should be self-evident

to any clued-in manager or employer. They are able to comfortably veil

this lie inside the cloud of a make-believe moral ethic: they’re just too

humble to market their own abilities. Going out of their way to make their

abilities known would be brownnosing. No self-respecting programmer

would be caught dead sucking up to The Man.

This is all just an excuse. Actually, they’re afraid.

Most programmer types were the last kids picked for every team when

they were in school. They probably avoided social situations where possible and failed miserably where not possible. It’s no surprise that these

people are afraid to stick their necks out by trying to show someone their


Suspending disbelief for a minute, let’s pretend the moral ethic nonsense isn’t such a put-on after all. Regardless of one’s intentions, it’s

stupid not to let people know what you’re capable of doing. Think of

it this way: you are employed to develop software that adds value to a

company. The job of a leader is to develop teams that deliver the maximum amount of value to the company. How is a leader to do his or her

job without knowing who in an organization is capable of what kind of


As one manager told me recently, if someone does something truly fantastic and nobody knows about it, in his eyes it didn’t happen. It may

sound ruthless, but from a company’s perspective it makes sense. Pragmatically speaking, managers don’t have time to keep close tabs on

what each employee is doing every day. And neither companies nor

their employees would want managers spending their time this way.

Companies want managers focusing on the big picture—not tracking

daily tasks. And employees (especially programmers) hate to be micromanaged.

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In short, you may have the best product in history, but if you don’t do

some kind of advertising, nobody is going to buy it. We all know—especially in the software world—that the best product doesn’t always win.

There’s a lot more to success in the marketplace than having a great

product. Let’s not forget this truth in the job market.

Enough already...what should I do?

On the surface, marketing yourself is simple. You have only two goals: to

let people know you exist and to let them know you are the person who

can solve the tough problems that keep them up at night. This applies

not only to the job market at large but also to the company at which you

currently work. Don’t assume that just because you’re employed with

a company, its management knows who you are. Furthermore, don’t

assume that just because a leader knows your name that he or she has

even the faintest understanding of your capabilities.

This part will not only help make sure your current leaders understand

what you’re capable of, but it will show you how to expand your scope

to the industry at large. In the book so far, we’ve talked about how to

be marketable. Now we’re going to learn how to put that marketability

into action.

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Perceptions, Perschmeptions

It’s comfortable to play the idealist and pretend you don’t care what

other people think about you. But, that’s a game. You can’t let yourself

believe it. You should care what other people think about you. Perception is reality. Get over it.

You probably know the old clichéd philosophical question, “If a tree

falls in the forest but nobody is there to hear it fall, did it make a

sound?” The correct answer to the question is, “Who cares?”

I mean, the fall probably made a sound. That’s not a very exciting

answer on a metaphysical level, but it probably did. But, if nobody

heard it fall, then the fact that it made a sound doesn’t really matter.

The same goes for your work. If you kick ass and no one is there to see,

did you really kick ass? Who cares? No one.

In the subculture of Indian IT bureaucracy, I was amazed at how people just didn’t get this simple truth. Almost everyone I dealt with there

didn’t understand why it should matter that their managers, for example, knew what they were doing. If you knew you were better than so

and so, then it should be reflected in your performance reviews, ratings, and salary. They had fooled themselves into thinking that how

other people perceived them was somehow subservient to the truth,

whatever that was.

This truth thing...what is it? Who defines it? What is good and what is

bad in an absolute sense?

The answer is that there is no absolute good or bad, at least not in terms

of judging who is better at a creative, knowledge worker job. How do

you define what makes a good song? What about a good painting? You

might have your own definitions, but I doubt I would agree with them.

They’re subjective.

Horrible risk-averse human resources

Performance appraisals departments in horrible risk-averse companies spin their wheels chasing objective

are never objective.

measures of the people they employ. Sometimes they even implement “objective” appraisal systems. All of my

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team members in India thought they wanted to be measured this way.

That’s because they had never experienced it before.

There is no way to objectively measure the quality of a knowledge

worker, and there is no way to objectively measure the quality of

their work. Go ahead. Disagree. Now think about your argument for a

while. See the holes?

So, if the measure of your goodness at your company (or in the industry or the job market or wherever) is subjective, what does that mean?

That means you are always going to be measured based on someone

else’s perception of you. Your potential promotions or salary increases—

even the decision of whether you should continue to be on the payroll

at all—is completely dependent on the perceptions of others.

Subjectivity, being based on personal taste, implies that you can’t count

on any two opinions being the same. Different people are impressed

with different factors. Some people might like rigid structure, while

others prefer loose, free creativity. Some may prefer to communicate

via e-mail and others face to face or by phone. Some managers may

like their employees to be aggressive, while others prefer them to act

like subordinates. You say “Poh tay toh”—I say “poh tah toh.”

It doesn’t come down only to personal preference. People in different roles and relationships to you build their perceptions based on the

qualities most important to making that particular relationship work

well. If I’m a project manager, the quality of your source code is a lot

less important to me than the quality of your communications. If I’m

a fellow programmer, your raw ability and creativity drive my perception of you more than, for example, your follow-through. But, if I’m

your manager, raw ability is ultimately meaningless to me unless you

actually do something with it.

We’ve culturally trained ourselves to perceive that managing perception is somehow a dirty and shameful activity. But, as you can see,

managing perception is just practical. When you explicitly take note

of the factors that drive other people’s perceptions of you, you more

firmly discover how to make them happy customers. You’re not going

to impress your nontechnical business client with your object-oriented

design skills. You might be a design genius, but if you can’t communicate effectively and you don’t manage to complete your work on time,

your customers will think you stink. It’s not their fault. You do stink.

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Perceptions really do matter. They keep you employed (or unemployed). They get you promoted or get you stuck in the same job for

years. They give you raises or lowball you on salary. The sooner you

get over yourself and learn to manage perceptions, the sooner you’ll be

on the right track.

Act on It!

1. Perceptions are driven by different factors, depending on who the

audience is. Your mother doesn’t much care how well you can

design object-oriented systems, but your teammates might.

Understanding what’s important in each of your relationships is

an important part of building credible perceptions with those you

interact with. Think about the different classes of relationships you

generally have with people in the office. For example, you probably have teammates who do the same type of job you do. You

also probably have a direct manager, and you may have one or

more customers and a project manager.

Take these different groups (or whichever actually apply given the

structure of your workplace), and list them. Next to each, write

down which of your attributes is most likely to drive that group’s

perception of you. Here’s an example:


Perception Drivers


Technical skills, social skills, teamwork.


Leadership ability, customer focus, communication

skills, follow through, teamwork.


Customer focus, communication skills,

follow through.

Project manager

Communication skills, follow through,

productivity, technical skills.

Put some thought into your own list. How might you change your

behavior as a result of this list? In what ways have you already

been adjusting your focus as you interact with each group?

In what ways have you not been appropriately adjusting your


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Adventure Tour Guide

At the risk of stating the obvious, the most important aspect of getting

the word out in the workplace is your ability to communicate. Gone

are the days of the disheveled hacker crouching over his terminal and

coding by the light of his monitor in the deepest bowels of the server

room. The occasional monosyllabic grunt between feats of wizardry

isn’t gonna cut it.

As disturbing a proposition as it may be, put yourself into the mind of

a manager or customer (I’ll just use the word customer throughout this

section to refer to both).

They’re responsible for something gravely important that they ultimately have to entrust to some scary IT guys for implementation. They

do what they can to help move things along, but ultimately they’re at

the mercy of these programmers. Moreover, they have no idea how

to control them or even to communicate intelligently about what it is

that they’re doing. In this situation, what’s the most important attribute

they’ll be looking for in a team member? I’ll bet you the price of this

book it’s not whether they’ve memorized the latest design patterns or

how many programming languages they know.

They’re going to be looking for someone who can make them comfortable about

the project they’re working on.

These managers and customers we’re talking about have a dirty little secret: they are Your customers are

afraid of you. And for good reason. You’re afraid of you.

smart. You speak a cryptic language they

don’t understand. You make them feel stupid with your sometimes

sarcastic comments (which you might not have even intended to be

sarcastic). And, your work is often the last and most important toll

gate between a project’s conception and its birth.

Your job is to be your customer’s tour guide through the unforgiving

terrain of the information technology world. You will make your customers comfortable while guiding them through an unfamiliar place.

You will show them the sights and take them where they want to go

while avoiding the seedy parts of town you’ve encountered in the past.

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Nonprogrammers are, on the average, as intelligent as programmers.

(That is to say that most of them aren’t very intelligent, but a few of

them really are.) Chances are high that your customer is just as smart

as you but just doesn’t happen to know how to program a computer.

That’s OK. You probably don’t know how to do much of what he or

she does on a daily basis. That’s why there are two of you, and you’re

both being paid to come to work.

I mention the bit about intelligence because computer people all too

often assume that anyone who doesn’t know how to operate a computer is not intelligent. Saying it explicitly like this makes it sound

idiotic, but that’s true of all prejudices. However, this feeling is so

ingrained in many of us that we don’t even know when we’re feeling

it. Explicitly trying to control it doesn’t work.

My advice is to reverse the relationship. Instead of feeling like you are

the computer genius, descending from computer heaven to save your

poor customer from purgatory, turn the tables around. If you’re, for

example, working in the insurance industry, think of your customer as

a subject matter expert in insurance from which you have to learn in

order to get your job done.

That being said, you need to be cognizant that your customers may

need topics toned down a bit when you’re discussing software-related

matters. There’s a delicate balance between too techie and too dumb.

“Why all this talk of how to treat your customers? I thought we were

going to talk about how to market myself.” If you work in a typical IT

shop, much of the budget that keeps you gainfully employed comes

from a business function—the same business function for which your

customers work and influence decisions. When promotion and staffing

decisions are being made, the best advocate you can have is a customer

who doesn’t want to live without you. On the flip side, imagine the

impact of a customer who thinks you are condescending. Your customer represents the needs of the business, and you are paid to provide

for those needs. Don’t forget this.

Act on It!

1. Check yourself —Are you the grumpy old code ogre everyone

fears? Are you sure? Are they afraid to tell you?

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Go through your mailbox, and find examples of e-mails that you

have sent to less-technical co-workers, managers, and customers.

As you read through, try to see things from the recipient’s perspective. If some time has passed since sending the messages, you’ll be

able to see yourself as a third-party observer would.

Even better, show the e-mails to your mom. Tell her that someone

you work with sent the messages to a customer, and ask her how

the messages would make her feel.

2. Hop the fence—Find an opportunity to be flung into a situation in

which you are not the expert and are thus dependent on others

who are.

If you have two left feet, imagine yourself on a soccer team. If you

have two left thumbs, imagine that you’re part of the National

Knitting Team. How would you like your teammates to communicate with you?

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Me Rite Reel Nice

The days of the monosyllabic programmer grunt are over. If companies

want to have difficulty communicating with their programmers, they’ll

sit the programmers on a different continent and in a different time

zone and communicate with them only via e-mail and phone.

So, the communication issue is an important one. On the list of tasks

you need to do to stay gainfully employed, it might sound a little

contrived, silly, or trivial. You might feel a bit like you’re back in

high-school English class. That’s OK. You can actually pay attention

this time.

We’ll get the most boring one over with first: grammar and spelling

are important. You probably have a degree in an advanced subject like

engineering or computer science, and here I am telling you to learn

how to spell. The nerve!

But, at least here in the United States, we have a problem.

According to a report by the National Commission on Writing, more

than half of all responding companies consider writing skills when

making both hiring and promotion decisions. Forty percent of surveyed companies in the services sector said that a third or fewer of

their new hires had the writing skills they desired.13

When you really step back and take a look at the big picture, writing

skills are both necessary and are in short supply.

As you know, the world’s workforce is distributing itself globally. As

this trend continues, there will come a time—for some, that time is

now!—when most workplace communication will take place in written form via either instant messaging or e-mail.

You’re going to be writing a lot. If so much of your job is going to

involve writing, you better get good at it. More than ever, perceptions

of you are going to be formed based on your writing ability. You may

be a great coder, but if you can’t express yourself in words, you won’t

be very effective on a distributed team.

13. http://www.writingcommission.org/report.html

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The ability to write creates both a superficial perception of you and

a real insight into how your mind works. If you can’t organize your

thoughts in your mother tongue so that others can clearly understand them, how can we expect that you can do it in a programming

language? The ability to shape an idea and lead a reader through a

thought process to a logical conclusion is not much different from the

ability to create a clear design and system implementation that future

maintainers will be able to understand.

This isn’t all about being judged, either. If you have team members in

different time zones and distant locations, writing may be the only way

you have to explain what you’ve done, how you’ve designed something, or what your team members need to work on.

Communication, especially through writing, is the bottleneck through which all You are what you

your wonderful ideas must pass. You are can explain.

what you can explain.

Act on It!

1. Start keeping a development diary. Write a little in it each day,

explaining what you’ve been working on, justifying your design

decisions, and vetting tough technical or professional decisions.

Even though you are the primary (or only—it’s up to you) audience, pay attention to the quality of your writing and to your

ability to clearly express yourself. Occasionally reread old entries,

and critique them. Adjust your new entries based on what you

liked and disliked about the old ones. Not only will your writing

improve, but you can also use this diary as a way to strengthen

your understanding of the decisions you make and as a place

to refer to when you need to understand how or why you did

something previously.

2. Learn to type. If you don’t already “touch type,” take a course or

download some software that will teach you. You’re more likely to

be comfortable and natural in your writing if you are comfortable

with the input method itself. Of course, with all this writing you’ll be

doing, you’ll save yourself some time by learning to type quickly.

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Being Present

You have the advantage of being face to face with your leaders and

your business customers. Don’t squander the opportunity.

While I was living in Bangalore as CTO of our software development center, I had the unpleasant experience of reporting to a manager who I not only disliked (and who disliked me) but who was in

the United States. We had strained, late-night or early-morning phone

conversations, made increasingly frustrating by background noise or

unintended disconnections. I would write long, descriptive e-mails in

an attempt to help close the distance and time zone gap, only to be

ignored. And, if I complained about being ignored, I would be criticized for writing long e-mails. It seemed like a no-win situation.

My company at the time had an annual performance review process in

which managers would list their employees’ strengths and (so-called)

development needs. The top of my development needs list that year

was something called presence.

Now, presence in this context is an ultracorporate word describing an

ever-so-fuzzy leadership trait. It’s the unmeasurable quality of having your presence felt—particularly in face-to-face situations. It also

includes the equally unmeasurable quality of carrying yourself like a


When I was sitting down talking about my performance review (over

the phone) with my beloved manager, I muted my phone when she

said “presence.” I didn’t want the laugh to be audible. I wondered

if she could hear the half-grimace and half-smile that I couldn’t wipe

from my lips for the rest of our conversation. She and I both knew that

the real problem was presence in the more common form of the word:

I just wasn’t there in the United States with everyone else.

Most of us who were willing to share our feelings disliked this manager. She did little to command respect, so it wasn’t much of a surprise.

The pattern that emerged was that the only employees who had really

negative relationships with her were the ones who weren’t in the same

geographic place as her.

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